There is fighting in the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, a few hundred kilometres away from a similar battle for the Syrian town of Idlib. While outwardly just a normal day for the fratricidal conflicts tearing apart these Arab states, there is a common thread: on one side of the conflict is al Qaeda.
In Iraq, both Sunni and Shia fighters have struggled to recapture the two cities from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda affiliate.
In Syria, a new rebel alliance calling itself the Army of the Mujahideen has been formed to take on ISIL. This alliance waged a two-day battle to recapture Idlib from the terror group. It is noteworthy that the rebels feel it necessary to take up arms against their erstwhile allies, putting them on par with the Bashar al-Assad government.
That more and more players are turning their guns on al Qaeda underlines two emerging trends. First, the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars are merging together into a single battlefield marked by an increasing number of transnational players like al Qaeda who are bringing in thousands of foreign jihadis.
The border between Syria and Iraq has disappeared and the writ of each government runs only in the eastern and western extremities of what used to be called the Fertile Crescent.
The second trend is that the vast space between Damascus and Baghdad has become like 1980s Afghanistan — a territory for Islamicist fighters to group, fight and coalesce into a global terrorist army. The rapid growth of ISIL is an indication that the incubation period for such a group is now much shorter thanks to the template left by Osama bin Laden.
The world has no clear idea on how to respond. The only country that would get bickering regional powers like Turkey, Israel or Egypt to form a common front against this new menace was the United States. But it no longer wants to play the role of the ‘indispensable nation’, preferring to keep an arm’s length from this and other conflicts.
By themselves, however, regional players lack resources and mutual trust to work together in any meaningful manner. This works to the advantage of only the new al Qaeda that has begun to emerge.